Why diets don’t work: a Mindful Eating perspective

Diets don’t work. A controversial statement for this time of year, perhaps, but it’s true that diets don’t work for the vast majority of people. And if you’ve experienced the merry-go-round of hope, deprivation and control that leads to weight loss – only to be followed by struggle, rebellion and the disappointment of regaining the weight – you also know that diets don’t really work.

My feeling is that we already know what foods and drinks help us to lose weight and yet something stops us from reaching (or maintaining) our weight loss goals. When it comes to dieting, the most powerful of the Eight Hungers of Mindful Eating is Mind Hunger, because a diet has more to do with the mind than the body and the foods we eat. Mind Hunger is based upon our thoughts about food and eating: what we should and shouldn’t eat, which foods are ‘good’ and which foods are ‘bad’. The thoughts of Mind Hunger can be absolute, and at the same time, conflicting. These thoughts come from the three pillars of Mind Hunger – the Food Police, the Rebel and the Inner Critic.

The Food Police creates the food and eating rules for mind hunger to obey

Diet plans and the rules of what we should and shouldn’t eat, counting points, calories or grams of carbs and fat are the perfect fuel for the Food Police. When we’re on a diet, the Food Police sets impossible standards, then monitors our every thought and act of eating and drinking with rigid control and deprivation. If you’ve ever checked the numbers to see if you can ‘afford’ to eat, or limited food because of what the scale is telling you, that’s the Food Police at work.

The Rebel encourages us to break the rules of the Food Police

The problem is, diets only focus on the end result with no room for detours or bumps in the road, and we have seven other hungers all vying for attention. Over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to function within the prison of these self-imposed rules. Eventually, the second pillar of Mind Hunger, the Rebel, joins the party. The Rebel encourages us to break the rules of the Food Police which can either lead to anxiety and guilt as the Food Police and the Rebel fight for dominance, or a ‘f**k it!’ attitude as the Rebel throws out the rule book! If you’ve eaten something that’s against the rules of the Food Police and then thought “well, I’ve broken the diet now, I may as well eat the rest,” you know the Rebel’s ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking has won.

The Inner Critic’s only job is to criticise and it has a whole lot to say!

How long the Rebel takes centre stage depends on the Inner Critic, the third pillar of Mind Hunger. The Inner Critic’s only job is to criticise and it has a lot to say about the food we eat, the alcohol we drink, our weight and the way we look. The Inner Critic is driven by fear and judgement, comparing us to others or the person we were some years ago, and finding fault with it all. The Inner Critic has the power to distort the truth and our desire to escape its destructive voices can drive us back to dieting. If you’ve looked in the mirror or stepped on the scales and the Inner Critic has responded with a stream of unkind thoughts, you may think a new diet is the answer: the Inner Critic is getting ready to hand over to the Food Police.

And so the cycle continues… the hope, deprivation and rigid control of the Food Police, followed by the struggle, anxiety and guilt of the Rebel and the disappointment and shame of the Inner Critic. With each diet we end up blaming ourselves and our self-esteem takes a beating. Over the years, the time we spend ‘on a diet’ gets shorter until we reach dieting rock bottom – we simply cannot face yet another cycle of dieting.

Mindful Eating helps us trust the deeper wisdom of our bodies

But there is another way: Mindful Eating. Mindful Eating helps us to acknowledge the rules of the Food Police, the antics of the Rebel and the toxic thoughts of the Inner Critic without being caught-out or fooled by them. When we engage in Mindful Eating practices, we can awaken to the truth of the present moment and free ourselves from the contradictory voices of Mind Hunger. Mindful Eating helps us to understand our complex relationship to food and trust the deeper wisdom of our bodies to break the cycle of dieting and guide us back to the ‘middle way’.

Mindful Eating practice

The Food Police – What rules do you have around food and drink? What foods are ‘good’? What foods are ‘bad’? How does sticking to the rules of the Food Police make you feel?
The Rebel – How does the Rebel encourage you to break the rules of the Food Police? How do you feel when you break the rules?
The Inner Critic – What does the Inner Critic have to say about your food choices? How does the Inner Critic complain about your weight and appearance? What impact does the Inner Critic have on your eating behaviours and the way you feel about yourself?

Please leave a comment below to let me know about your Mindful Eating experience. I’d love to hear what you learned from the practice.

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